The fine art of landing a barge on the towline

Capt. Jim Lane has been working around boats on the British Columbia coast about as long as anyone. He earned his first money with a rowboat towing small logs that had escaped the booms back to the sawmill for 50 cents apiece.

“That was big money for a 10-year-old,†he recalled as we sat in the wheelhouse of the tug Sea Warrior.

We had just pulled away from the Sea-Link Marine Services company dock in New Westminster on the Fraser River east of Vancouver, just two or three miles upriver from where Lane began his career with that rowboat. In the six decades that have passed since then a great deal has changed on the British Columbia coast. The logging industry, on which the towing industry here was built, is much diminished with little to take its place. Few new boats, other than for ship docking, have been built in British Columbia since the 1970s. The few that have been built tend to be 50-foot day boats.

Larger boats, like the 91-by-26-foot Sea Warrior, were built for towing logs and barge loads of wood chips. With experienced masters like Lane in the wheelhouse, the single-screw tug can do anything that her younger twin-screw peers can. I had arranged this trip to witness one of the master barge-handlers on the coast work with a single-screw tug to handle a heavy coal barge on the towline.

The addition of a bow thruster has given the boat a new versatility. Lane demonstrated this while moving Sea-Link’s tug General Jackson to a berth above the company’s Sea Commander. The 141-foot Sea Commander, built in Virginia by Marietta in 1945, has four engines putting a total of 3,000 hp to a single gear to turn a massive single prop. The 96-foot General Jackson (ex-Larain), built in 1958 at Port Arthur, Texas, makes do with a single 1,700-hp EMD engine. Lane is familiar with all of them and dozens of others as well.

With the boats sorted at the dock, Sea Warrior moved out into the currents and passed up through the railway bridge. The empty 263-by-62-foot barge MLT Great West was waiting 12 miles upriver. Along the way, Lane and Chief Engineer Tom Williams talked about the decline in the number of sawmills that once dotted the shores. The occasional salmon jumped, but the numbers are now too low for a commercial fishery. At the dock, where a load of limestone had been offloaded, Lane had the crew make up to the 300-foot barge with a pair of wire bridles.

With the bow pointing upstream, he made a wide arc out into the river to pass under the new Golden Ears Bridge and head back downstream. By 1800 the tug and tow were well downriver, making 9.1 knots over the ground with the help of 1.5 knots of current. Lane had the Caterpillars set at 1,016 rpm, a little under their 1,200-rpm maximum.

Williams expressed some worry about the exhaust temperatures, to which Lane growled, “I don’t care what kind of engine it is, if it is 1,000 hp, an engineer wants to run it at 800. Says it will last longer.â€

“Well that is true; it will,†parried Williams.

“Ya, and if you never start it, it will last forever,†declared the captain.

This tradition of push and pull between engine room and wheelhouse is as old as engine-driven boats. And these men joyfully celebrated the ritual with all the deadpan invective they could muster.

Reaching the Strait of Georgia at 2000, the tug and tow swung to starboard. Settling on a course of 230°, just to the right of the setting sun, Lane went to the aft controls to let out the 1.75-inch towline from the 400-foot river length to about 1,200 feet for the trip up the coast. “We have a 400-foot pendant and another 1,800 feet of mainline, but don’t need any more than 1,200 feet now,†explained Lane, “because there is no weather this evening.â€

In the wheelhouse, with about 90 miles to go to Cape Mudge, he reduced speed to 940 rpm and the tow settled in at 7.9 knots. At 2200, Lane cut back to 500 rpm, since they were well ahead of schedule for Cape Mudge. The final destination was the coal terminal at Middle Point about 10 miles from the cape and just below the tidal bore of Seymour Narrows.

In the soft light from the instruments, the wheelhouse settled into story time. Lane told of towing up the west coast of Vancouver Island with Sea Warrior. Bucking into heavy seas, he saw green water come three-quarters of the way up the tug’s big wheelhouse windows. “I saw them bend,†he recalls, “but they held.â€

Another story is of running a Miki tug, Mary Mackin, across the Gulf of Alaska. At one point, he was passed by a U.S. tug whose skipper asked him to take a look at the mobile homes stacked atop the containers. “Every one had two holes out the side where the washer and dryer had rolled out,†he said.

It fell to mate Gerald Walsh, on the 12-to-6 watch, to take charge for the continued run up the coast. At 0600 the next morning, at the beginning of the skipper’s watch, the tug and tow were 15 miles off Cape Mudge with a fair tide pushing the pair along at 7.4 knots and the chief happy at 880 rpm on the twin Cats.

This speed reduces the fuel burn to only about 20 gallons per hour compared with 50 at 1,200 rpm, which would have increased the speed only to 9 knots. “If you have a couple of hours to spare, it makes sense to cut back,†explained the captain to the pleasure of the chief.

The tides that flood around the north and south ends of Vancouver Island meet in the waters south of Cape Mudge. There have been a lot of boats and mariners lost in these waters and now, with the north and south floods meeting here, the small waves generated by the light winds were forming peaks like rugged mountain tops. “Anyone who is stupid enough to come (southbound) through Seymour Narrows on a big flood and then comes out here when it is blowing 40 or 50 deserves what they get,†explained Lane, with the weight of decades of successful commands on his side.

By 0815 the tow was up to Cape Mudge and Lane reported in to the vessel traffic service which told him that the U.S. tug Western Navigator was southbound from the narrows. With the flood still running, Lane hugged the Quadra Island shore to take advantage of the back eddy there. An hour later we were off the dolphins below the coal loader. With the force of Seymour Narrows tides pouring off the nearby and justly named Race Point, Lane focused on the kelp heads and current on the dolphins to plan his strategy for the landing. “Any time you try to second guess the tides in here, you just screw yourself,†he commented.

With the landing on the Vancouver Island side to port, Lane would have to turn the barge for a starboard side landing. Having already shortened the tow wire to a couple of hundred feet, he turned straight into the landing. As he neared the dolphins, he went aft and ran the balance of the tow wire onto the winch drum. When the shackles for the bridle came up to the winch’s spooler, he kept on wrapping it up until the slightly pointed bow of the barge (there was no rake) was tight on the stern of the tug. The crew put up a ladder for mate Tom Welch and deck hand Brad Vick to climb from the deck to the bow of the barge.

The tug was now bow onto the mooring dolphins and locked tight to the bow of the barge as a single nearly 400-foot-long unit. Using only the bow thruster along with the fore and aft thrust of the single propeller, Lane twisted the unit 90° while easing it in to kiss the dolphins. From the time that the mate and deck hand were put up to the barge until they had mooring lines up had taken only 20 minutes. But compressed in that short time was six decades of boat handling experience and a lot of patience.

For much of the time, Lane was standing at the aft controls, watching the tide and listening to the higher pitched exhaust of the two-cycle, 120-hp Detroit auxiliary that powers the hydraulic drive of the bow thruster. When I marveled at the power of the bow thruster to swing that big barge, Lane observed, “The tug is 100 feet long and that gives it a lot of leverage power. We are locked up so I only use the main to move ahead or aft.â€

By the time we were twisting into the mooring, the tide had slacked off. “Sometimes if there is more tide,†said Lane, “I will let out a few inches of slack to gain a little steerage to swing the tow, but so long as I am locked up, the bow thruster will do the job.â€

Sea Warrior hasn’t always had a bow thruster and Lane could have done the job without it, but he is full of praise for the addition. “It is like night and day. Without the thruster I would have to leave out 6 to 12 inches of wire to maintain steerage.â€

With the mooring lines secured to the barge, Lane asked the mate and deck hand on a handheld-VHF to let the tug’s bridles go. “Don’t ever let go of your barge’s bridles until the headline is up on the dolphin. Then you can move to the outside (of the barge) to adjust it fore and aft for the loader.â€

With the bridles back aboard the tug, Lane swung around so that deck hand Ron Vanwieringen could put lines up to the outside of the barge. The other two crewmembers still on the barge directed Lane over the VHF until the barge was positioned properly for the coal loader. Vick measured and recorded the barge’s fore and aft freeboard, an activity that he would repeat for the owners of the coal after the barge was loaded.

It took only about two hours to load 4,249 tons of coal onto the barge. Empty, the barge had only about 2 feet of draft forward and 3 feet aft. Loaded, the measure indicated about 12 feet of draft forward and 14 feet aft on the barge’s 17-foot hull depth. At 1225, Lane called the vessel traffic service in Comox to report that Sea Warrior was underway with a 1400 ETA back at Cape Mudge.

For this Discovery Passage section, he let out 650 feet of wire to gain a little more control in the relatively confined waters. The tide was now at full ebb, so the tug was making only 3.6 knots bucking into it.

In tugboat wheelhouses the world over, there is always talk of mariners with whom one has sailed and the boats in which they worked. Lane recounted a bit of the history of Sea Warrior from the original build of the hull in Sorel, Quebec, in 1959 and then the tow around through the Panama Canal and finally the completion and commissioning in 1966 as Island Warrior by Harold Elworthy of the old Victoria-based Island Tug and Barge Co. Eventually this evolved into the Shield family’s modern Vancouver-based Island Tug. “When they began towing more petroleum products, the insurance company probably wanted two props not just two engines,†explained Lane. “So they sold the boat and Peter Brown at Sea-Link bought it and modified the name to Sea Warrior.â€

With 40 years on the coast, the boat now has nearly as many stories as Lane. By 1030 the tow was well down the coast alongside Texada Island and making a comfortable 7.5 knots. By sunrise at 0620 the next morning, we were down to 3.5 knots bucking the ebb and the river current in the lower Fraser River. By 0805 we had arrived at the cement plant to which the barge was to be delivered.

The landing involved a slip into which the barge had to be backed facing downriver. Again, Lane locked up the barge and boat. With the stronger river current and the nearly 180° turn, he had requested a little 350-hp assist boat, H&R. It was on the way, but Lane went ahead and turned the now heavily laden deep-draft barge with the same care and patience he had used earlier. By the time the assist arrived, he had, with the aid of the bow thruster, turned the barge, and with a nudge from the assist, pushed it back into the slot.

Once the dock crew had the barge moored to their satisfaction, Lane spun Sea Warrior out into the river’s current and pushed the brass throttle control forward. Freed of its tow, the boat leapt ahead and was soon doing 11.5 knots running light for home.

A lot has changed in the towboater’s world since Lane started out in the 1950s. Electronics have made navigation easier and twin propellers have eased the challenges of boat handling. In a world where cussing has become routine, it was a pleasure to hear the invective of a master who learned the old way. Lane is one of a proud line of such men.

By Professional Mariner Staff